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Overnight curfew fails to stem bloodshed in Tunisia

Rights groups say at least four people have been killed in clashes with Tunisian police overnight as protesters defied a curfew imposed by the government to stem the growing unrest over unemployment and the soaring cost of living.


REUTERS - Gunshots were heard in the centre of Tunis on Thursday, a Reuters reporter said, after one man was killed in clashes with police in the city overnight.

Black smoke could be seen billowing in the distance and people were covering their mouths against the fumes, while police blocked off the area.

The latest clashes were taking place a short distance from the central bank building in the city's main commercial area, which also houses the main bus and tram station.

Overnight, crowds defied a curfew aimed at bringing a halt to the north African country's worst unrest in decades.

In the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, where the unrest started nearly a month ago, witnesses said several thousand people had marched through the streets chanting anti-government slogans.

People taking part in the unrest say they are angry about unemployment, corruption and what they say is government repression. Officials say the protests have been hijacked by a minority of violent extremists who want to undermine Tunisia.

The latest official count for the number of civilians killed in the unrest is 23. But witnesses told Reuters on Wednesday another five had been killed, while the United Nations said rights groups put the toll at almost 40.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the deaths were "a result of some excessive measures used, such as snipers (and) the indiscriminate killing of peaceful protesters".

The government says police have only fired in self-defence when rioters attacked with petrol bombs and sticks. It also says death tolls from rights groups are inflated.

The unrest is the biggest challenge to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali since he took office 23 years ago. On Wednesday he sacked his interior minister and ordered the release of arrested rioters.

A night curfew for Tunis and suburbs began at 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Wednesday, the first time it had come into operation.

But for several hours after that, crowds in at least two neighbourhoods of the city threw stones at police and ransacked buildings, Reuters reporters at the scene and witnesses said.

A resident of the working class Ettadamen suburb, 25-year-old Mejdi Nasri, was shot in the head, two witnesses and his cousin said.

It was the first time since the wave of unrest broke out that anyone had been killed in the capital.

A small crowd gathered outside the victim's family home to protest the killing, and shouted "Allahu Akbar!", or "God is great!" Government officials had no immediate comment.



Sidi Bouzid was where the unrest -- initially focused on youth unemployment -- started in December when a jobless local man set fire to himself in protest at his treatment by the authorities. The man later died.

Several witnesses told Reuters by telephone that between 7,000 and 10,000 people were marching through the streets.

Asked what slogans the crowd were shouting, one witness, who did not want to be named, told Reuters: "It is not just about unemployment any more. It's about freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, all the freedoms."

Tunisia has come under international pressure over its handling of the protests from the United States and the European Union, its biggest trading partner.

Some analysts say the Tunisian government is likely to be able to contain the unrest, but that in the longer term Ben Ali could find himself weakened and his opponents emboldened.

The protests are being watched closely in other countries in the Arab world with the potential for social unrest, especially after rises in world food prices.

Financial markets have also been alarmed by the unrest in Tunisia, one of the region's most open economies, which has been attracting steady interest from foreign investors.

Tourism, which accounted for 11 percent of Tunisia's hard currency earnings last year, may be especially vulnerable to the unrest. On Thursday the Netherlands issued a statement advising against all non-essential travel to Tunisia.

The main Tunis stock market index fell 3.78 percent, the fourth day of losses, taking it to a 12-month low. Credit default swaps -- or the cost of insuring exposure to Tunisian risk -- reached 18-months highs.

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